Fare thee well, seals of Erebus Bay

The 49th season of the Erebus Bay Weddell seal population study is complete! In early December, the crew tagged and surveyed the last few seals, packed up the sea ice camp at Big Razorback, and pulled all the bamboo flags marking the sea ice roads. An astounding season and a top-notch crew. Be sure to check out the final blog post for the project and if you missed crew member Aubrey Power's blog, check it out too. In mid-December, the last of the crew piled into a C130 and dispersed, either to travel or return home (I'm writing this from my Missoula, Montana home). This marks my last blog post for this season, but if you'd like to stay connected to Aspiring Ecologist, be sure to follow @aspiringecologist on Facebook, @aspiringecol on Twitter, or @jessedevoe on Instagram. Check out more about our science at weddellsealscience.com.

All photos acquired under NMFS Permit #21158

Weddell pups (right) averaged a whopping 214 pounds at weaning (~35 days old). Imagine this life for a moment: over the course of about 1 month, you would gain just over 4 pounds per day (go ahead and grab the pound of butter in your fridge to get a sense of it). Even in America that'd be tough!  This is mom and pup at Big Razorback Island colony. Unknowing to the pup, mom is about to say "au revoir!".

But for now, ignorance is bliss and life is good: "this calls for some flipper chewing!"

Weddell seals live out their lives in some beautiful places. They never migrate away from the Antarctic. In fact, it is likely that the great majority of them don't go far at all, remaining in McMurdo Sound or around the Erebus Bay archipelago year round. Here, Weddell seals lounge amongst the ridges and rifts of the sea ice (caused by pressures being put on the ice by the continual push of the glaciers on Ross Island and Mount Erebus seen in the background) at Big Razorback Island. This may be open ocean in a few months.

Looking down on the North Base seal colony during a helicopter reconnaissance flight. This gives a reasonable perspective of how long it might take for researchers to "work" one of our ~7 seal colonies: every other day, our team visits each colony, requiring us to essentially check every single seal. As you can see, it isn't always straight forward travel (we arrive to the colony by snowmobile, but travel within colonies is by foot) across the pressure ridges, around melt pools, across cracks, and all while trying to minimize our disturbance to the seals. The big ice chunks are collapsing glaciers coming down from Mount Erebus that are frozen into the sea ice, waiting to be released at the next ice break-up (which may not be for several years). The seals are hauled out onto frozen ocean.

A view looking South, down along Hut Point Peninsula (McMurdo is several miles in that direction, where Scott's hut from early expedition days is located - go ahead take a look and go inside!).  Look closely for the few seals hauled out in the jumble of the South Base colony. Some of these ice chunks are several stories high. These seals are so hard to access that our crew only was able to visit them once this year.

A morning departure from Big Razorback camp. We go everywhere by snowmobile, and cannot accomplish our work without these tools. Our team has been using the same sleds for at least a decade now, and while keeping them running is always a challenge and sometimes very frustrating, we are fond of them and their variable personalities! The red sled being towed is a siglund sled, with all our gear for the day - tagging supplies, lunch, bamboo flags, probing poles, ice axes, and a survival bag.

Fare thee well, oh Weddell seal pup. It won't be long before the sea ice melts and brings a whole set of challenges for the new pups (the most terrifying being the killer whales and leopard seals!). They must learn many new skills to survive. Our studies are trying to make the connection of nature or nurture when it comes to seal survival. How much fat did mom transfer? How much did she teach you to swim? What genes did you inherit? And will you survive to see us in the future??? 

Our sad departure, loading onto the C130 (though, it's pretty rad to fly in one of these!)

Looking out from a port hole at the open ocean and sea ice interface.

Sardines. We spent most of our time looking out the window though.

Looking out across the vast, endless Victoria Land.

All photos acquired under NMFS Permit #21158